ARLINGTON, Texas — Florida coach Jim McElwain started redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks on Saturday, finished with graduate transfer Malik Zaire and thought about trying 2016 starter Luke Del Rio as well.
In summary, one week and one 33-17 loss into the season the Gators aren’t any closer to having an answer at quarterback.
“You know what, we’ll sit down, we’ll take a look at it, and we’ll put a plan together for this next game and get a look at it,” McElwain said afterward.
Franks finished 5-of-9 passing for 75 yards in his first collegiate game. It was a tough environment to make a debut — a mostly-full 100,000 seat stadium, a national television audience and months of preseason buildup and optimism at stake against a Michigan team ranked No. 11 in the country.
It would have been understandable if McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier chose to go with one or both of their veteran quarterbacks Saturday and wait to ease Franks in next week against Northern Colorado. But if they felt he clearly won the quarterback competition and simply deserved to start, that’s understandable too.
Franks made a beautiful 34-yard completion on his first passing attempt, showing nice touch in dropping the ball over Josh Hammond’s shoulder down the right side. He later had a 16-yard scramble for a first down and a 31-yard come-back connection with Tyrie Cleveland.
But after finishing with just one first down and one costly fumble over his final three series, he got the hook.
“He had some jitters, but you know what, he had a good look in his eyes too,” McElwain said. “That was a heck of a throw he makes on the first throw he makes, puts it perfect, does the right read. They were in Man-3, we had a split safety concept on the back side and he took care of it on the front side. He used his feet a little bit. Just really battled.”
Left tackle Martez Ivey kept it positive too when talking about Franks.
“He did well. I mean, it’s a big stage, his first game he ever played, first college game. You know, it’s a big one,” he noted, all fair and true. “A little crowd noise out there for him, but when we play other places there’s going to be a lot more noise. But it’s a development game almost for him. It’s come out here and just learn, learn the ropes and learn how to take it, just slow the game down. The more reps you get, the more experienced he’s going to be , he’s going to be a well-polished QB.”
At some point this season, maybe even some point soon, Franks very well may be. But Saturday wasn’t the day.
So in came Zaire, who finished 9-of-17 passing for 106 yards while taking 5 sacks behind Florida’s overwhelmed offensive line.
He looked quick and decisive after taking over, giving a glimmer of hope that he might spark the offense, but with the line reeling and the running game nonexistent the end result wasn’t any better.
His highlights were a 22-yard pass to Cleveland, where he scanned the field, pointed to the sophomore wideout and led him with a high pass over a defender, and later an 14-yard strike to tight end C’yontai Lewis on the sideline after buying some extra time and firing a dart.
But none of his series got the Gators closer than the Michigan 48 until it was too late. He padded his final numbers with passes of 28 yards to Hammond and 20 yards to Kadarius Toney down to the Wolverines’ 35 before taking one final game-ending sack.
“You know, our quarterbacks obviously didn’t play great. You usually don’t play great when you’re playing off your back foot, so we’ve got to do some things that way that’ll help,” McElwain said.
McElwain said the coaches considered going to Del Rio late in the game, but instead they held out hope Zaire could strike with a big play.
In the end it didn’t matter.
Michigan so clearly dominated this game that McElwain admitted the Gators weren’t able to even try some of the potentially more creative plays they had in mind for dynamic slot receivers Dre Massey and Toney.
“They were a big part,” he said of the intended game plan. “There was some stuff we didn’t get to.”
This was simply a lost Saturday for the Florida offense. Franks didn’t seize control of the position as many hoped he might. Nor did Zaire definitively prove he was a better option, on this day at least.
Instead, the Gators are right where they were a week ago or a month ago or nearly three months ago for that matter, back when Zaire arrived on campus and the quarterback question became the summer storyline.
The loss wasn’t all on the quarterbacks. The blame goes around, for sure. But it also wasn’t the showcase anybody in orange and blue was hoping for from the position.
So the questions will resume Monday for McElwain, same as before. Who starts? Do multiple guys keep playing? Etc, etc.
“I guess it’s up to the coach. I don’t know,” Ivey said. “I just I feel like Feleipe, he did well. It’s a tough game for him, his first start. But I believe in him. It don’t matter who’s back there. I believe in him. I believe in Malik, I believe in Luke, I believe in him. It don’t matter.”
In the big picture it matters a lot, though.
McElwain was asked about the need to establish an identity on offense. That’s going to be hard to do until the Gators know who their quarterback is moving forward.
“You know what, we got to look at a lot of things. And yet it’s not time to hit the panic button,” McElwain said. “We’ve got a good football team. We’ll come back and do the right thing and be OK.”
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